Fire Fight- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian

Fire Fight

With forests burning, U.S. officials are clashing with environmentalists over how best to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes

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“It’s as if we’ve spilled millions of gallons of gasoline in these forests,” says David Bunnell, the recently retired manager of the Forest Service’s Fire Use Program, in Boise, Idaho, which manages most wildland and prescribed fires and coordinates fire-fighting resources in the United States. During the past 15 years, the amount of acreage burned by wildfires has climbed, reversing a decades-long decline. In 2002, almost seven million acres burned—up from four million in 1987—and the federal government spent $1.6 billion and deployed 30,000 firefighters to suppress wildfires. Twenty-three firefighters were killed.

Decades ago, Aldo Leopold prophetically warned that working to keep fire out of the forest would throw nature out of balance and have untoward consequences. “A measure of success in this is all well enough,” he wrote in the late 1940s, “but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” Recently, the Forest Service has come around to Leopold’s view, but many environmentalists continue to oppose agency plans to remove timber from forests.

Klein, who took over management of the Black Mesa District in 1991, places herself in Leopold’s camp. “Over my years here, we’ve put out hundreds of lightning starts as quickly as we could,” she says. The practice protected communities at the time, she adds, but also increased the risk of fire in the long run.

By nightfall, June 18, firefighters dispatched to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation believed they might contain the arsonist’s blaze. But the Rodeo Fire was burning too hot and too fast. On the morning of June 20, the other blaze—the Chediski Fire—was threatening to jump the Mogollon Rim and attack Heber-Overgaard and other communities. Klein’s husband, Duke, a wildlife biologist, and their three children were evacuated from the family home in Heber-Overgaard along with everyone else as the flames closed in. For most of the day, she didn’t know where they were.

Firefighters at the Black Mesa Ranger Station hoped to make a stand along a forest road on the rim, but they had only one bulldozer and fewer than 30 people. Klein called her boss and requested more firefighters. “He just said there aren’t any; you’re not going to get ’em,” she recalls. Major fires had hit other states, and about 1,000 firefighters were already working above and below the rim.

The morning of June 22, the Chediski Fire raced 12 miles, jumped the rim and reached the SitgreavesForest tract that Klein had targeted for thinning. Returning from a briefing she’d given firefighters in nearby Honda that afternoon, Klein drove through “miles and miles of fire,” she recalls, past burned-out houses and a blackened trailer park. “I got back to find it had overrun the town and was threatening the ranger station. It had run six or seven miles in a few hours. Its power awed me. Flames rose a couple of hundred feet in the air. It looked like the fire was boiling up there, and you’d see pieces of trees, branches going up. People were scared. I talked to the crews, and they had gotten into some very hairy situations trying to defend the station. In the evening, the fire died down a little, but around midnight we found out that a whole subdivision was threatened. So those guys went out and started fighting the fire again. They worked all night and kept at it until about noon the next day. We didn’t have any replacements.”

By the next day, the Rodeo Fire began to merge with the Chediski Fire, becoming one great conflagration, eventually stretching 50 miles across. It was what experts call a “plume-dominated fire,” intense enough to generate its own weather, with towering thunderheads and rain that evaporated as it fell.

That night, Klein drove up a canyon and at 2 a.m. reached the head of the blaze, a harmless-looking ground fire just creeping along. But there was nobody she could dispatch to attack it. “I felt totally helpless.” That morning, Monday the 24th, the fire made another run, which destroyed more houses. Then, on Tuesday, a team of firefighters arrived: soon there were more than 2,000 firefighters along Highway 260, which runs through Heber-Overgaard. Firefighters subdued part of the inferno with backfires—fires intentionally set to reduce fuel in the path of the oncoming blaze. The rest eventually burned itself out as it ran into patchier, less flammable piñon-juniper country.

Over 20 days, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned more than 460,000 acres. About 50,000 people were evacuated and 465 residences destroyed. Klein’s house was spared, but many of her friends and neighbors were not so lucky; 15 percent of Heber-Overgaard was destroyed. Ultimately, more than 6,600 firefighters had fought the blaze, aided by 12 air tankers, 26 helicopters, 245 fire engines, 89 bulldozers and 95 water-supply trucks. Suppressing the fire cost about $43 million. It will cost another $42 million or so to do emergency rehabilitation in the forest, such as reseeding to prevent erosion and flooding, and long-term recovery work.

The tragedy still galls Klein. “If we had done all the thinning we wanted to over the years, we could have kept this fire from exploding, and we could have saved the towns it burned through.” In a sense, she blames environmental activists. “All those arguments we heard about how ‘your timber sale is going to destroy Mexican spotted owl habitat,’ ‘your timber sale is going to destroy the watershed.’ And our timber sale wouldn’t have had a fraction of the effect a severe wildfire has. It doesn’t scorch the soil, it doesn’t remove all the trees, it doesn’t burn up all the forage. And then to hear their statements afterward! There was no humility, no acceptance of responsibility, no acknowledgement that we had indeed lost all this habitat that they were concerned about. All they could do was point their finger at us and say it was our fault.”

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